Vijitha Yapa: Journalist, Editor, Bookseller, Publisher

Ishara Jayawardane

Vijitha Yapa

From the most humble of beginnings ending up as one of the most influential people in Sri Lanka, Vijitha Yapa’s is a success story. He has been a leading journalist and editor and is now a publisher. Vijitha Yapa is a well known name in Sri Lanka being the Founder, Chairman, and Managing Director of the largest English bookstore chain in the country. Reminiscences of Gold spoke to Vijitha Yapa about his life experiences and achievements.

“I was born in a small village called ‘Waralla’ which is in the Southern Province; a little village between Kotapala and Morawaka on the Akursssa-Deniyaya road. My father was a tea planter and he was also Chairman of the Village Council. One of the things that he insisted was that we all go to school in the village and that is an experience I treasure very much.

He had 10 children and all of us went to this school and the early part of our childhood was spent there. The whole school had only one building and all the classes were held there. We had long desks and benches and next to me was a boy whose father was the peon in my father’s office. It gave us a tremendous introduction to life and an ability to understand people. My father said that we should never forget our roots in the village.

Recently all of our family members got together and gave the village school a computer laboratory with 20 computers and we built a separate building for the purpose. When the school was upgraded, parents and teachers wanted my father’s name associated with it; so it is now called the M.D. Yapa Maha Vidyalaya.”

In 1952, my father decided to send me to S. Thomas’ College, Bandarawela. I was admitted to the third standard and I had a problem. I didn’t know any English and I was called a “Godaya.” All the others had started from Kindergarten and they knew their English. I was determined to overcome the language problem. I was in the boarding house and the lights went off at 8 pm in the night. There was a friend who said: “OK, I’ll help you.”

When the main lights were switched off, we practically studied in the washroom.

I am glad to say that I was able to get a distinction in English at the end. This was an experience which convinced me that if you are determined and apply yourself, there is nothing to prevent you from achieving your goals”.

New thinking

After a few years in Bandarawela, Vijitha Yapa moved to S.Thomas’ Mount Lavinia. He left school in 1964 and opted for a career in journalism. “Mr. Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, invited me to India. And I joined an English weekly paper he was publishing, called ‘Himmat’ meaning ‘Courage’, With a circulation in over 70 countries, it was basically a paper which gave a new thinking – if you want to change the world you have to start with yourself. That was how I was trained as a journalist. I worked with a group of interesting people from different countries. That gave me contacts with journalists throughout the world.

“It is important to build relationships with people. If you do that then there are many things you can achieve, especially as a journalist.

For instance, as Editor of the Sunday Times, I came to know about the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) the day before they landed here. So we were able to send a reporter and a photographer to Jaffna before the Indian troops arrived there. So we had exclusive pictures and a first hand account in the Sunday Times.”

In 1971 Vijitha Yapa was invited to direct the first ever full length feature film in Papua New Guinea in the Pidgin language, a record for a Sri Lankan.

He has worked as a freelancer for a number of foreign newspapers and his articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Financial Times, The Far Eastern Economic Review, Gulf News, and International Herald Tribune. He also became the correspondent in Sri Lanka for the Times of London.

His contribution to Sri Lankan journalism is also noteworthy. He was the founder editor of three National Newspapers of Sri Lanka, The Island, The Sunday Island and The Sunday Times.

In August 1976 Yapa wrote an exclusive cover story of 8 pages on Jaffna titled: “Will Sri Lanka Split?” which was published in Himmat. It was a fine piece of investigative journalism and he foretold many things which unfolded in later years.

“I realized that people did not understand the Tamil issue. This was long before Prabhakaran came to the scene and before the victory of J.R. Jayewardene.

I had long interviews with TULF leaders such as Amirthalingam and Sivasiththambaram and stayed in the home of Kathiravellupillai, the treasurer of the TULF. I got to know their thinking. So the warnings were there. But unfortunately they were not heeded.”

Even though he retired from Journalism in 1991, he embarked upon a new line of business. By this time he had a network to distribute the Reader’s Digest, the International Herald Tribune and the Wall Street Journal in Sri Lanka, but he did not have his own sales outlet.

His wife Lalana suggested: “why don’t we find a small place to sell these publications?” So in August 1991 he started a small shop near Vajira Road but soon expanded to open a large bookshop in Unity Plaza, Bambalapitiya. Now he has 12 bookshops, including one at the airport.

Sri Lankan authors

In addition to his chain of bookshops, Yapa also started his own publishing company and Sri Lanka’s first PR company, VYA PR. He has been doing a great service to the country by publishing books on Sri Lanka by Sri Lankan authors.

“I observed that most of the books on Sri Lanka have been written by Indians or other foreign nationals.

This annoyed me because you don’t get a Sri Lankan perspective in these books. So when I went into publishing, I wanted to encourage and promote Sri Lankan writings. In recent years, we have published a large number of books by reputed Sri Lankan authors. I want to get our books into every library in the world.

That is why we produce quality books. Through the Sri Lanka’s Publishers Association and the Booksellers Association, we participate in international book fairs. We will be taking part in the World Book Fair in Delhi in February. The Export Development Board has been assisting us and will help at the London Book Fair in April. ”

He got elected uncontested when he decided to contest as the President of the Sri Lanka Book Publishers’ Association for 2013. He is very hopeful about the future of Sri Lanka’s publishing industry. “Sri Lanka needs to get more involved internationally.

Sri Lanka has a great potential and a lot to offer. There is a tremendous future for the publishing industry in Sri Lanka which can help the country in regaining many of the things we have lost as a nation. From the stimulus of island politics, we need to move towards the satisfaction of world remaking,” said Vijitha Yapa. COURTESY:DAILY NEWS